Manila and Washington have both denied that the bilateral strategic dialogue between their senior diplomats and defense officials last week intends to bring back permanent American military bases in the Philippines. The talks, they said, is just meant to explore increased US military presence in the country such as conducting more joint exercises and rotating more American troops.
Officials said that the threat posed by China to both countries justifies the direction that the dialogue aims to pursue. The US State Department declared that protecting the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is an interest shared by the Philippines and the US. Its Defense Department said that they want to discuss how America’s enhanced posture in Asia can be useful to the Philippines. Meanwhile, for our Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), “we need to have a good neighbor on the block” so that the country can no longer be bullied by China.
What’s driving America’s renewed interest in Asia? Is it really for the national interest to play an eager part in the US agenda in the region? Or is the Aquino administration courting undue risks by hosting heightened US military presence and upping the ante in the country’s territorial dispute with China?
Economic crisis drives US pivot to Asia
The expanded military cooperation with the Philippines forms part of Washington’s “pivot” to Asia, as State Secretary Hillary Clinton called the shift in US focus from Afghanistan and Iraq to Asia, where “the future of politics will be decided”. This pivot is being driven by the ever worsening crisis of global capitalism of which the US is the center. In an essay entitled America’s Pacific Century in November last year, Clinton wrote that Asia will yield the biggest returns in US investments at a time when the country is facing a severe economic crisis. Clinton described Asia as central to US economic and strategic interests with its vast markets and investment areas crucial to its own economic recovery.
Under the Obama administration, the US has been steadily laying the groundwork for a reinvigorated American economic clout in Asia. In last year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Hawaii, President Barack Obama was able to secure wide support for the US-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal to enhance US free trade and investment with the region. The agreement, which the Philippines will soon join, is expected to be finalized this year. Its increasing economic interests in Asia thus necessitate the refocusing of US military projection in the region.
Expanded military ties
The Philippines, along with Japan, South Korea, Australia and Thailand, have long maintained treaty alliances with the US. But the ascent of China as an economic behemoth has posed new challenges for American interests in the region. China is being depicted as having the greatest potential to compete militarily with the US and a threat to the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which for the first time is being considered as a matter of US national interest. Thus, as Clinton wrote, there is a need not only to sustain but to “update” US’s existing alliances which will serve as the fulcrum of its pivot to Asia. This entails the expansion of existing military cooperation and forging new ties for defense and security.
When finalized, the deal with the Philippines will follow improved US military arrangements with other long-time allies like Australia and Singapore. The pact with Australia allows the US to station up to 2,500 Marines in a military base in Darwin while the deal with Singapore will let it station combat Navy ships for forward deployment. The US has been building up as well its military relations with Vietnam through joint naval exercises, and in August last year, the former Cold War foes forged their first formal military deal. It is also aggressively pursuing new bilateral ties including even with Burma, which Clinton visited last December – the first trip by a US Secretary of State in more than half a century.
US priorities for 21st century defense
Updating existing military alliances and forging new ones, however, have to be pursued in the midst of the harsh economic realities facing the US. Amid its raging public debt crisis that has been caused in part by costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration released this month its latest defense strategy document Sustaining US global leadership: Priorities for 21st century defense. The document was the result of “an assessment of US defense strategy in the light of the changing geopolitical environment and changing fiscal circumstances”.
Consequently, the latest US defense strategy calls for developing “innovative, low-cost and small-footprint approaches” to achieve US security objectives, relying on bilateral and multilateral training exercises, rotational deployments and advisory capabilities. This will allow US forces to “conduct a sustainable pace of presence operations abroad” and at the same time let it commit to a large-scale operation in one region while still having the capability to impose “unacceptable costs” on an aggressor in a second region. But given its reduced resources, the US needs to make thoughtful choices on the location and frequency of these operations. As mentioned, Asia is high on Obama’s list of security priorities. Apparently referring to the South China Sea, the defense strategy reaffirmed US commitment to “assure access to and use of global commons by maintaining relevant and interoperable military capabilities”.
News of expanded PH-US military cooperation earned strong condemnation from Global Times, one of the mouthpieces of the Chinese government. In its editorial Make Philippines pay for balancing act, the broadsheet denounced the Philippines for inviting more US troops and increased presence by using the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. It called for well “well-measured sanctions” against the Philippines and “make it ponder the choice of losing a friend such as China and being a vain partner of the US”. Global Times proposed that China “consider cooling down its business ties with the Philippines”.
While not an official policy statement of the Chinese government, what the Global Times editorial said is not an empty threat. It underscored one of the risks that come with Aquino’s excessively pro-US foreign policy. The export-oriented Philippine economy has seen the demand for its products abroad decline amid the raging global crisis, substantially slowing down gross domestic product (GDP) growth. Philippine exports have contracted by 5.6% from January to November 2011 with exports to the US, which is at the center of the crisis, falling by 6.2 percent. On the contrary, amid the contraction in exports to the US, exports to China remained robust, growing by almost 9.9% during the same period.
False sense of security
More importantly, increased US presence presents a continuing risk to the country’s national sovereignty and its people. The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which Filipino and American officials said will remain the basis of expanded military cooperation, has allowed the virtual permanent basing here of as many as 600 US soldiers that for legal experts and some legislators is an infringement of the 1987 Constitution. Several cases of human rights violations and other abuses involving American troops have been reported including the highly controversial Subic rape case.
And worse, while the Philippines is willing to face these risks, Aquino is clinging to a false sense of security by inviting more American soldiers and more US military ships in the country. Last year, the US embassy in Manila clarified that the US “does not take side in regional territorial disputes” in reaction to a Malacañang statement saying that Washington will surely honor its commitment with the Philippines and come to the aid of the country in case a military conflict erupts in the South China Sea. Instead, the US will simply arm the Philippines by selling it “affordable military hardware” so that it can “defend itself”. Ironically, the possibility of an actual military conflict with China is being stoked by aggressive projection of US military might in the region in connivance with the Aquino administration, putting the country and our people at risk.
In the end, the question is not which party to side with, but how the Philippines can best protect its territorial integrity. It is not in our interest to play a willing part in US military maneuverings in the region. If there is a perception that China is bullying us, the solution is not to run for help to a bigger bully. Diplomacy within the framework of mutually beneficial relations with our neighbors in the region should be our utmost weapon. Clearly, the best foreign policy is one that is anchored on the assertion of national sovereignty and not one that relies on a Big Brother to protect the country’s interests. #